Era of one-man rule over in Arab world: U.N. envoy

BEIRUT Thu Sep 29, 2011 12:45pm EDT

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The era of one-man rule in Arab countries is drawing to a close and the change sweeping the region will take hold in Syria soon, a United Nations envoy said.

"Syria is in the midst of a profound crisis. I do believe strongly that there will be substantial change," U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams told Reuters.

"When that will take place it is very difficult to ascertain but I don't think we are talking about years."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father as leader in 2000, is battling a six-month uprising against his rule in which the United Nations says 2,700 people have been killed.

The protests were inspired by revolts in North Africa which overthrew Arab strongmen who had held power for decades and, in Egypt and Libya, groomed their sons for succession.

"Fundamentally the period of one man rule, or family rule, has ended or is coming to a close in the Arab world," Williams said in an interview in his offices in the hills above Beirut.

"No longer can any country be governed, in the modern world of communication and highly sophisticated economies, in this way. And that's the root of the problem in Syria. "

Syria's army and security forces remain mostly loyal to Assad, despite a growing number of military defectors. But the economy has suffered from the unrest and from Western sanctions imposed on Syria for repressing the dissent.

"BRUTAL FORCE"

Williams said Assad was using "disproportionate and brutal force" against mostly unarmed protesters, though he said there had been armed clashes and casualties among security forces.

Syria says more than 700 soldiers and police have been killed in violence it blames on armed groups backed by foreign powers. Troops loyal to the 46-year-old president have been battling military defectors in the town of Rastan since Tuesday.

Assad has lifted a state of emergency in force for nearly 50 years and promised a multi-party parliamentary election next year, but Williams said there had been no substantive change.

"I think that's been both disappointing and stunning, that the president does not seem ready to avail himself of political tools which are available," he said.

Speaking at the end of a three-year assignment to Lebanon, Williams said change in Syria would improve chances of progress toward a ceasefire between Lebanon and Israel.

Lebanon's militant Shi'ite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, fought an inconclusive 34-day war with Israel in 2006. The United Nations has since beefed up a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, which has remained largely peaceful, but there has been no movement toward a formal ceasefire.

Williams said Israel's continued occupation of part of the border village of Ghajar and its regular military flights deep inside Lebanon's air space, combined with Hezbollah's retention of a large weapons arsenal, all contributed to the impasse.

"Ambitiously, what I would like to see in the future (is whether there is) a possibility of making progress toward a ceasefire, which certainly could not be overnight, and would need interim steps," he said.

Those steps could include "undertakings by the Israelis for example that there are circumstances in which (they) would diminish or suspend flights. And undertakings on behalf of the Lebanese state and Hezbollah that they would correspond with decommissioning arms."

But no agreement was likely unless Palestinians were able to make progress toward statehood and there was change in Damascus. "Any breakthrough...has to take place in a regional context which is more propitious," Williams said.

(Editing by Tim Pearce)

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